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Mr. Macron is not the first French president to call for the creation of a NATO-free European military alliance.CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images

At some point in the foreseeable future, Europe is likely to end its seven-decade-old protective relationship with the United States, possibly supplementing or breaking up NATO in the process and creating an independent continental defence network.

The question is when that point will be. Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, has shocked other European leaders, North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and many of his French colleagues by suggesting it ought to be now.

The Dec. 3 NATO summit in London was going to be a fraught event anyway. U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for the 29-country military alliance has already made a mess of the last couple of summits, and Turkey, a 67-year member, has been testing the limits of NATO’s values and constitution with attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria.

But Mr. Macron has turned these stress lines into an existential crisis. In an explosive interview last week, he declared that “what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” adding: “The instability of our American partner and rising tensions have meant that the idea of European defence is gradually taking hold. … In my opinion, Europe has the capacity to defend itself.”

He questioned whether NATO’s Article 5, which requires all members to come to the defence of anyone that is attacked, has practical value any more. He spent this past week stressing that he wants to turn the coming London summit into a debate about the existence and meaning of NATO and to get the European Union to strengthen its own mutual-defence clause, presumably in preparation for a break with the alliance – a prospect that alarms non-European NATO members, notably Canada.

Taken in isolation, none of this is new or surprising. That NATO is “brain dead” – in the sense of being devoid of co-ordinated thinking or agreement on priorities – has been apparent for years. It’s an open question whether Article 5 is still useful (if Turkey were to invoke it in response to a Kurdish action, many predict it would not hold up). And Mr. Trump has shown that the U.S. can no longer be trusted as the sole guarantor of a continent’s defence.

Mr. Macron is not the first French president to call for the creation of a NATO-free European military alliance. In fact, almost every president of the republic from Charles de Gaulle onward has made some gesture along those lines. I personally watched Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, on occasions a decade apart, call for a European defence force.

But if European unity was Mr. Macron’s goal, his gestures dramatically – and perhaps deliberately – failed.

On Thursday, at a congress of centre-right politicians in Zagreb, Croatia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck back. “We don’t need to turn the order of the past on its head,” she said – even though she too has suggested, as recently as 2017, that Europe should develop its own defence alliance. “For me, NATO remains the transatlantic alliance. It is right to also have a European pillar of defence policy, but inside NATO.”

And Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, has been pointing out that, assuming Brexit occurs, about 80 per cent of NATO’s military spending will come from non-EU members – a tough gap to fill.

At root is a dispute not over the future of NATO – the French and Germans are not far apart on that – but the organization of Europe. As such, if Mr. Macron’s observations and aims are sound, his methods are downright baffling.

As he was demanding European independence from NATO, he was simultaneously calling for a reconciliation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia – France will play host to a summit to this effect in December, convened with the friendly assistance of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Suffice to say that many European countries see Mr. Putin and Mr. Orban as exactly the sort of threats Europe needs to defend itself against. Add to this the fact Mr. Macron has been boasting of his “excellent” talks about NATO with Mr. Trump, and the French President has managed to divide Europeans against themselves with rare efficiency.

Mr. Macron is an intensely strategic political player who tends to overcalculate every gesture and statement. And he has been clear that his goal is a smaller, more unified Europe – one that would place France, soon to be the EU’s only nuclear-armed country, at the forefront. Perhaps this is his clever, roundabout way toward that goal. If so, it could end up unifying Europe, but more likely in support of a renewed NATO than any French-led alternative.

Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.